A Georgia tractor trailer driver for Wal-Mart who had been continuously awake for 24 years caused a deadly pile-up early Saturday morning in New Jersey. Although details are still emerging about the crash, we do know a Georgia truck driver is charged in the New Jersey crash that killed comic James McNair, 62, of Peekskill, New York.
Kevin Roper, 35, of Jonesboro, Georgia, was operating a truck “on the New Jersey Turnpike without having slept in excess of 24 hours,” according to the complained filed in Middlesex County Court. Roper failed to see traffic slowing in front of him on the turnpike near Cranbury Township, slamming the limo bus carrying comedian Tracy Morgan and several other comics and friends after a performance in Delaware, police said.
The impact flipped the Mercedes limo on its roof and caused a chain reaction crash involving four other vehicles. Morgan and three passengers, Ardie Fuqua, Harris Stanton, and Jeff Miliea were also injured in the accident according to New Jersey State Police spokesman Gregory Williams.
Roper, a Wal-Mart employee, has been charged with death by auto and four counts of assault by an auto in connection with the accident. He was driving a company truck at the time of the crash and has obtained a lawyer. Bill Simon, chief executive of Wal-Mart U.S. said they were cooperating with the investigation and “will take full responsibility” if their truck is found to have caused the pile-up involving an SUV, two cars and an additional tractor-trailer.
“There were multiple vehicles involved, so we would like to see what issues are at play in this accident,” a spokesman for the NTSB said. “As in all investigations, we will look at the work/rest schedule of the drivers.
Although it is not yet clear what factors caused the crash, the accident highlights a move by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week to undermine a federal regulation mandating truck driver rest.
Last week, the committee passed an amendment that would suspend a requirement that truck drivers rest for at least 34 consecutive house-including two nights from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. before beginning their next work week. The so-called “restart” regulation was among a number of changes that took effect last summer with the aim of reducing driver fatigue.
The new rules also limit the maximum average work week for truck drivers to 70, a decreased from the maximum of 82 hours. The new rules also requires the driver to take a 30-minute break during the first eight hours of a shift.
In a blog post, FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro admonished Congress for attempting to roll back some of the new requirements.
“We carefully considered the public safety and health risks of long work hours, and solicited input from everyone who has a stake in this important issue, including victims’ advocates, truck drivers and companies,” she wrote in the post. “Suspending the current Hours-of-Service safety rules will expose families and drivers to greater risk every time they’re on the road.”
In testimony to Congress last year, Ferro said the FMCSA estimates the new regulations will save 19 lives and prevent 1,400 crashes and 560 injuries every year.
Keith Holloway, a public affairs officer for the National Transportation Safety Board, told reporters the agency is investigating the crash in more detail and will explore the possibility that Roper or Walmart were in violation of the FMCSA regulations. The FMCSA has a long list of rules truck drivers must comply with in order to ensure they have had proper rest.
“We’ll be looking at driver fatigue and medical qualifications and more the broad strokes of the accident,” Holloway said. “[If it was a violation] we would document it and use it as part of fact gathering to prevent accident like this from reoccurring.”
Ken Shigley is past president of the State Bar of Georgia (2011-12), double board certified in Civil Trial Advocacy and Civil Pretrial Advocacy by the National Board of Legal Specialty Certification, and lead author of Georgia Law of Torts: Trial Preparation and Practice. His Atlanta-based civil trial practice is focused on representation of plaintiffs in cases of castastrophic personal injury and wrongful death.